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A California law requires extra scrutiny of public schools for seismic safety. But not all schools are subject to the rules, and experts debate whether it’s still necessary.
San Diegans have earthquakes on the mind after a series of Baja temblors rattled homes and nerves here two weeks ago. They have less to worry about their children’s schools: California public schools are seen nationally as the gold standard for seismic safety under an exacting law called the Field Act.
But not all schools are subject to the rules. Preschools aren’t covered by them. Private schools are covered by a separate, slightly less demanding law, which doesn’t apply at all to older private schools. And charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, don’t fall under the Field Act unless they accept state facilities money — something that is rare here — or use district buildings.
That means that charter and private schools don’t always have to occupy buildings that meet the same rigorous earthquake standards as public schools. If charters or private schools use older buildings, such as churches or offices, they may have passed muster under older, lesser codes.
When the San Diego Unified School District and the city tried to shave costs from the schoobrary — a planned school in a future downtown library — one reason they made it a charter was to dodge the stricter seismic rules and their added costs. A dated and still disputed state study estimates that the Field Act increased construction costs by 4 percent.
One school board member argues that skipping the Field Act was an irresponsible step. “It’s stupid,” said John de Beck. “We’ve got a high-rise building in an earthquake zone that’s supposed to handle kids.”
Yet experts and legislators disagree over whether the law is needed to keep kids safe. The Field Act’s critics argue that as city building codes have grown stronger, the act has become overkill, delaying public school construction and making it more costly — when less stringent but still effective city codes would suffice. Newly built schools, such as the imagined schoobrary, fall under more recent, tighter city rules. Project supporters say those city rules are ample protection from earthquake dangers.
“Cities aren’t interested in building unsafe buildings,” said Scott Himelstein, a consultant who is helping to plan the school.
One state senator wants to shift the power to enforce the Field Act from a California agency, the Division of the State Architect, to cities in order to speed up construction times. But Field Act supporters counter that the sterling record of Field Act buildings is a good reason to keep the rules in the state’s hands. Three years ago, the California Seismic Safety Commission argued that no public school should be free from the Field Act, including charter schools and court schools.
Charter backers fear if that happened, they’d struggle to find suitable buildings, something that has already been a battle for some.
When the Field Act was first enacted in 1933, Long Beach schools had narrowly missed a disaster when a massive earthquake happened after classes were out. Buildings collapsed — but no children were there. Later quakes showed Field Act schools faring much better than schools built before the law. During a 1952 earthquake in Kern County, only one out of the 18 Field Act schools suffered even moderate damage, while 30 of the 40 non-Field Act schools were damaged, according to a draft report by the Seismic Safety Commission.
But as cities tightened up their earthquake codes, the gap between them and the Field Act’s requirements narrowed. An independent state oversight group pointed out in 1992 that both Field Act schools and buildings built under newer state codes had done well in recent earthquakes.
What makes the Field Act different than the codes governing other buildings is its demanding level of oversight and inspection. Ali Sadre, president of the Structural Engineers Association of San Diego, likened the difference to making a soup with a professional chef either watching over your shoulder or just checking in.
Building an ordinary building is like being handed the ingredients and a recipe and being told to chop while the chef steps out, Sadre said. When the chef returned, he or she would check that the ingredients were chopped correctly before they went into the soup.
Under the Field Act, Sadre said, it’s like the chef stands there the whole time and supervises you while you cook. “Is one better than the other? Is it necessary? The argument can go both ways.”
Field Act schools must have a state inspector continuously watch their construction. By contrast, San Diego requires inspections at crucial milestones during construction, but not all the time. Three years ago, the state seismic commission concluded that Field Act schools had held up well in earthquakes because of that closer monitoring.
Ongoing inspection helps avoid hidden mistakes that might happen between spot checks, said David Karina, president of the American Construction Inspectors Association. “Once you pour the concrete, we don’t have X-ray eyes,” Karina said. “We don’t know if bolts were moved. This is all vitally important.”
Afsaneh Ahmadi, San Diego’s deputy development services director, said some building projects outside the Field Act do use continuous inspectors, but it isn’t common because of the added cost.
Under the Field Act, school construction plans must also be created by structural engineers; other buildings can be created by civil engineers who have less required training. Depending on the specific rules in city codes, the Field Act may also require some slightly stiffer design criteria.
“A Field Act building is meant to not only withstand the earthquake but to have a greater likelihood of remaining usable,” said Jim Watts, planning director for San Diego Unified. “With a non-Field Act building, the intent is to protect the occupants so they can get out and it doesn’t collapse on people.”
And the power in the Field Act lies with the Division of the State Architect, which checks plans, orders special tests and inspects buildings. That’s another key difference from schools inspected by cities or counties, which may have different codes and their own inspectors who interpret those rules differently. Gary McGavin, an architecture professor who sits on the state seismic commission, said San Diego has a fairly sophisticated building department, but other, smaller cities may be less exacting.
One proposed law would put the Field Act in cities’ hands, with the intent of lowering costs and cutting down on red tape. Tom Duffy, legislative director of the statewide Coalition for Adequate School Housing, argued that cities would be so inconsistent that it would destroy the Field Act.
Some people support that idea. Engineers and academics debate whether public schools really need such intense monitoring to ensure seismic safety. The Pacific Research Institute, a free market think tank, derided the Field Act as “multiple layers of bureaucratic sediment” that bloat costs and delay construction. The question is whether extra safety justifies the cost if ordinary buildings are growing safer — and just how safe is safe enough.